Is Darwin dead?

Dear friends,

I’ve just arrived back in London after an incredible tour with Street Orchestra Live in the north east of England! I do suggest checking us out on social media, as there is so much wonder and music to see. I’ll hopefully get a post in about the orchestra soon. In the meantime, you might find my most recent thoughts on biomedical enhancement amusing or interesting, so take a look at a short little bit of writing that manifested itself the other day.

FYI the post doesn’t actually answer the question posed in my cheeky title, but I figured it would be a good hook. I hope you enjoy!

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It seems that some of the most common concerns regarding human enhancement centre around competition. I was speaking with a coursemate about the ethics of enhancement, specifically about her own worries with the future of enhancement. She was worried that one would fall victim to the super-human, one that could flit across the room in the blink of an eye, with strength surpassing that of any unenhanced human, who could then either easily kill or even suppress the individual that is not enhanced. This idea of ‘strength’ seems to pop up as a common thread connecting these concerns; those who are stronger than us, mentally or physically, can out-compete us.

But why is it that our concerns centre so much around the idea of competition? Perhaps if we take Darwin and his theory of evolution into account, we may find a partial answer. Darwin and his contemporaries have shown quite well that humans, along with other living beings, have managed to evolve (by the power not of their own rational minds but by the force of nature) in a way that gives one the best fitness, or ability to survive in this world and produce one’s own kin. The goal, then, of evolving beings (whether this goal is consciously known or not) is to have a body that leads towards the best fitness. Evolution, as I best understand it, is in one sense the notion of nature deciding the fate of human beings, succumbing them to forces outside of their control. Evolution creates beings that are able to out-compete other beings for resources and sexual partners, ensuring that their dominant and successful genes keep moving down to future generations.

We can visualise this idea pretty clearly when we think about the animals around us. The gazelle that can outrun the leopard is the one that reproduces, and usually her offspring will be equally able to outrun a common predator. The gazelle’s entire existence is not necessarily determined by her rationality, where a potential rationality belonging to the gazelle would imply that the gazelle’s yearning to live is backed by a strong affiliation to her friends and family, to a love of life, or to a love for her other offspring. However, we may not be able to make certain generalisations about the motivations of a gazelle, because many other animals exists that are highly social and socially dependent beings.

What should be distinguished is that despite the gazelle aiming to live longer, to avoid death, she still may not know why she is avoiding death. Therefore, outside of mental capacities that are housed in a system analogous to the human cerebellum, we might say that it is only physical characteristics (muscle build, length of legs, height, digestion abilities, etc.) and natural instincts (non-higher order thinking) that are important to the gazelle and her survival. For all intents and purposes, we might be able to say that the gazelle lives at the hands and subsequent fate of nature.

If we drew the same conclusions about contemporary humans, we might think these conclusions were a little short-sighted. However, going back to my coursemate’s qualms about enhancement, we might realise that these worries are directly tied to fitness and competition. My coursemate was concerned about how powerful the enhanced human could be, specifically citing physical characteristics that made the human more powerful than her. Primarily these concerns stem from a fear of her life being put at risk (and perhaps death), but citing this fear is not enough to sufficiently explain why someone is so afraid of an enhanced human being physically better than her. Presumably the fear of being out-competed, or ultimately of dying, stems from the evolutionary drive to be ahead of the game and out-competing others for resources. If one is dead, they have lost their ability to win over resources, but more importantly, they have lost their ability to procreate if they haven’t already had any offspring. So, we might conclude that these fears stem from the evolutionary drive to procreate and keep spreading one’s successful genes to the next generation.

I asked myself a question while thinking on this issue, wondering who or what type of person I would consider as the most ‘fit’. Additionally, I would approach this idea from multiple angles: Who would I consider most fit regarding others? What would one consider as most fit regarding oneself? Who does ‘society as a whole’ deem as the most fit? I first thought of the most fit being an individual with huge muscles, great flexibility, very aesthetically-pleasing, and one who could seriously beat me into the ground if we were vying for the same food source. Those who actually live out this caricature in real life are usually (and perhaps stereotypically) seen as the ‘beefy meatheads’, those who want to have sex all the time and physically please themselves as well as the people around them. Their main goal is to out-compete those around them for any resource, be it food, reproduction, or living space. Their goal is dominance and reproduction via physical means. This method of living may in fact be a good way for fulfilling the goal that Darwin so eloquently laid out in his theory of evolution: those who are seen as the most (physically) ‘fit’ in society could, in fact, be seen as the most ‘fit’ in the Darwinian sense of the term. However, as believable as this may be, humans do not solely rely on physical features and characteristics for the sake of survival.

It’s now commonly known that educated women (although I might go on to say that more educated partners in general) have less children as opposed to women (partners) who did not have any sort of schooling or education. If we move outside the realm of the physical and into the realm of intellectual capabilities, the simple “more fit = more reproduction” model tends to become increasingly less representative of human behaviour. One may think that animals who are more cunning, who are smarter and sneakier, may be able to outsmart their fellow competing animals for a source of food or for a sexual partner. Would it be, then, that the better the mental capabilities, the more an animal reproduces? Following Darwinian evolution, this may be true, but it seems that this model is far too simple to describe human behaviour. In fact, with the example I stated at the beginning of this paragraph, we can start to see that those who are smarter or who are more educated will tend to have less children. This could lead to a certain testament: regarding humans and mental fitness, more fitness does not necessarily imply more reproduction. (Might it imply less?)

Humans have evolved past a point of relying solely on physical fitness for the sake of survival. There is reason enough to think that humans have been able to break free from the Darwinian model of evolution, or at least the latter portion of a two-part theory. It may still be that the most mentally fit (and perhaps physically fit) people manage to get with the best sorts of partners (whatever that may actually mean, because we really can’t define what is the ‘best’ sort of partner), but the end goal of reproduction is nowhere near identical to what the endgame is of many contemporary partners in our society. In fact, those who are more educated and well-off (this is not bringing up anything regarding the justice of this positioning in life) have managed to pretty well prevent reproduction of their offspring. (As an aside, I’m not only implying the use of contraception, as this would only apply to heterosexual partners. As society comes to realise that heteronormativity is surely not the only ‘right’ way to live, then we create more situations that are less prone to biological reproduction in the way it is commonly thought of.) With literacy, technology, and education, humans have been able to go to many lengths to diminish the chances of creating more humans that would increasingly burden this world. As I see it, the world could make use of humans living longer and producing less children, for many reasons. (This is not to say that we need to stop having children altogether.)

The implementation of the enhancement enterprise (following the words of Allen Buchanan) may allow for a new humanity that is not meant to reproduce but that which is meant to focus more on social equity and fairness. Unfettered reproduction, at this point in time, has the potential to be very detrimental and burdensome to the planet and its inhabitants. (I know this can lead towards sounding paternalistic, but I think the idea can be considered without implying state rule such as the one child policy in China, or more generally the heavy-handed government that restricts too much human freedom.) Enhancement and bioengineering give us not only the opportunity to be more deliberate and careful about when we have children (if at all), but also gives us the chance to create humans that will be the saving grace to society. Natural evolution may be seeing an end in our time, solely because we’ve managed to create a world that requires serious thought about conservation and sustainability. We are need of figuring out how to save the planet in which it lives. If enhancement can help bring us towards that goal, then we may be able to focus more on bringing about a society that is just, equitable, and more pleasant for all who think of the earth as home.

***

There may be some ideas in here that are controversial, or those that a reader may disagree with. As is the nature of philosophy, with debate comes more knowledge, so please do submit any comments if you would like and we can discuss further! I also have not read fully Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and should probably read further into theories of evolution and the philosophy behind evolution. Perhaps that should go in the queue of reading for the next month, so please do send recommendations along for reading if you have any.

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One thought on “Is Darwin dead?

  1. Darwinism is not moribund. A downside to the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is that we began to think of humankind as rational animals. Coming on the heels of the Dark Ages, The Age of Reason accomplished a lot in a short period of time. But the dominance of rational thought during those fertile years could not be sustained forever. I suspect that the farther we got from the Dark Ages, the less we were able to sustain the dominance of reason in our thinking.

    Thinking of the human brain as capable of both rational and irrational thought is in some sense, a false dichotomy. We as humans are from time to time able to have rational thought dominate over, not irrational thinking, but instead emotional thinking or thought imbued with feelings. In fact our brains, at their best, make good use of a hybrid of rational and feeling imbued thought as in major changes in scientific thinking, music, art and creative writing.

    When a stimulus from the environment, say a noise or a series of noises, is detected by the brain, the stimulus is subjected to a faster and a slower processing. The faster process compares the stimulus from the environment with a catalog of past experiences. If it finds behaviors that were successful in dealing with similar stimuluses in the past, similar behaviors are begun again. This gives rise to fight or flight responses and to a myriad of other ‘conditioned’ behaviors.

    This process is well along by the time the stimulus reaches the cognitive parts of our brain. It is only after the process of searching for conditioned responses is in play that we become aware in our consciousness of the sounds coming from the environment. That is when we begin to ‘think’ about how to respond to the noise stimulation from the environment. This gives us the chance to come up with a new behavior in response to the incoming stimulation.

    One of the ideas that I have taken away from a seminal book, “The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures” by Antonio Damasio is that thought imbued with feelings have been around, evolutionarily speaking, a lot longer than have our cognitive processes. Feelings play a part in many processes in the human body that it is often almost impossible to separate them from our attempts at ‘pure rational thinking’. Thoughts imbued with feelings have ingratiated themselves in much of our thinking.

    Thus I think, with a great deal of feeling, that we human animals will not outgrow the parameters of Darwinian described evolutionary processes any time in the forceable future. In fact there is the danger of elitists who are convinced that they can create a superior race will attempt either passive or active euthanasia in an attempt to do so. I believe that history backs me on this point.

    As to more educated women having fewer children, this will not affect the number of births in any significant way. the bulk of giving birth will still be done by women who are not the more educated women.

    I strongly suggest that you add Damasio’s book to your reading list.

    Bill Feiser

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